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John Cassy: Factory 42

Posted on Mar 20

6 min read

Alumni Events & News

John Cassy (1993) has worked in the media sector since his student days, having held roles at Cambridge Evening News, the Guardian and Sky. He is Founder and CEO of Factory 42, an immersive technology and experience studio. Here he tells us about his path to founding the company and shows us what goes into the creation of ‘impact entertainment’.

Please tell us a little bit about your background and career journey.

I graduated from John’s in 1996 with a degree in Social and Political Science (now HSPS).

Ever since I have worked in various forms of storytelling and content creation.

It’s been a career of three chapters moving from newspapers to TV and now immersive experiences and technology.

Today I run an immersive technology and experience company working at the intersection of film, games and live events called Factory 42. We’re based at Somerset House in London.

John Cassy in the Factory 42 offices in Somerset House, London, UK

Chapter one of my career was in newspaper journalism, a passion that stemmed from writing for Varsity at Cambridge and then as a part-time news reporter for the Cambridge Evening News. I did this role somewhat under the radar during term time and it required a hangover busting 6am start on Saturdays.

It mostly involved bombing around the Fens in a rather cool Cambridge Evening News branded blue Mini to report on the great issues of the day such as village flower shows, minor crime and the latest sightings of the mysterious Fen Tiger.

What was it like working on newspapers and how did you move into television?

Those experiences enabled me to land a graduate training role on the Express newspaper – which involved virtually no training and even less money but was brilliant on-the-job learning.

From there I moved to the Guardian to write mainly about media and technology, including the boom and bust era of the early 2000s when Google was a start-up and Apple was seen as a computing also-ran. I was lucky enough to report from everywhere from Silicon Valley to the European Space Agency’s base in French Guiana near the equator in South America.

This sparked a real interest in how technology was changing media and creating new ways to tell stories that people were prepared to pay for. I was itching to launch my own business but, on the basis that I had zero experience of running anything I knew I had to find a way to learn.

At that time TV company Sky was making waves shaking up the UK broadcasting duopoly of the BBC and ITV. It was introducing new technologies and had a laser-like focus on customer service that the UK television industry hadn’t really seen before.

I managed to wangle a role working for the then Chief Executive of Sky with a very loose brief of responsibilities. I had the personal mission of learning as much as I could in a couple of years from the smart people around me before having a crack at my own thing.

But ten years later I was still there. Sky was an incredible, fast paced, demanding, fun and ever changing place to work, and I was fortunate to learn from some brilliant people, some of whom went on to be angel investors in Factory 42.

What did you do during your time at Sky?

My most enjoyable role was setting up the Sky Arts TV channels. It helped change perceptions of Sky at a time when it was best known for Wayne Rooney (football) and George Clooney (movies) and was seen as a bit of a cultural wasteland.

But Sky was serious about providing choice for everyone and the traditional broadcasters had cut back on arts content.

My job was to ensure we broadcast the best possible schedule of content, build a happy and returning audience, attract artists and creators and develop lasting partnerships in the cultural sector.

We set about building our own ‘Champions League’ of arts content, doing deals with world-class cultural organisations from Glyndebourne and La Scala opera, the Berlin Philharmonika and the Tate and V&A galleries in visual arts.

We had a multi-year partnership with the Hay Literary Festival which Bill Clinton called ‘the Woodstock of the mind’ and included a daily ‘best of the festival’ show where one memorable cast list found the Archbishop of Canterbury and a Burlesque performer sitting next to each other on the interview sofa.

Sky Arts became something of a TV oasis for audiences starved of cultural content, pretty soon millions of people were tuning in each month and talent ranging from Melvyn Bragg and his South Bank Show through to veteran interviewer Sir Michael Parkinson joined our roster.

Later I went on to commission a number of Sir David Attenborough documentary series that used new technology to give fresh perspectives on natural history.

What motivated you to launch Factory 42?

It was great fun working at Sky but my entrepreneurial itch persisted.

Technology was going through another rapid evolution and new opportunities to create new types of content were emerging. These sat somewhere between a game and a TV show using virtual and augmented reality.

Hold The World – David Meets David from Factory 42 on Vimeo.

So in 2016, aged 42 and with a second child on the way, I thought it was now or never and took the plunge to launch my own creative studio, Factory 42. (Yes, my age was partly behind the name. But there is also a Johnian link via Douglas Adams (1971) as the number is the answer to ‘the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’ in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

What sort of work does Factory 42 do?

Factory 42 creates what we call ‘Impact Entertainment’. We combine the science of storytelling with the magic of technology to create purposeful, emotionally engaging and interactive that generate profit and measurable social impact. We work with companies including the BBC, Sky, Meta, Google and EE, and organisations ranging from the Natural History Museum to the Tate Galleries.

The Green Planet AR Experience Showreel Video from Factory 42 on Vimeo.

We recently ran ‘The Green Planet AR Experience’ with Sir David Attenborough and the BBC at London’s Piccadilly Circus. Audiences were able to use augmented reality to step into the TV series and go on a self-guided tour with a holographic version of David. A virtual audience with David is not to be sniffed at and audiences loved getting up close with the digital replica. Research showed that the mixture of interactivity and light gamification built visitor empathy with the natural world and drove positive behaviour change towards the environment.

What was it like working with Sir David?

David has been in television since the black and white days and has loved being an innovator since launching Europe’s first ever colour TV channel, BBC2 back in the 1960s. Now approaching the age of 97 he remains fascinated by new technology and how it can engage audiences in new ways.

He has always been an absolute pleasure to work with, with extraordinary reserves of energy. He’s a one-take wonder when filming and is forever able to enhance a script at a moment’s notice.

We used a special camera rig with 106 cameras and a green screen to create his hologram and filmed him in a warehouse underneath the Heathrow flight path. It was a long way from his more exotic exploits in the Poles or on the savannahs, but he took to it like a duck to water.

What is the role of immersive content in an increasingly digitised world?

Immersive experiences are offering new ways to engage people’s emotions and brains. Properly harnessed they have the potential to have a really positive impact on society, entertainment and education. The technological change forecast for the next ten years will radically alter how we create and consume stories as well as how we engage audiences. It’s hard to do well and involves many different skills – our team includes video games designers, engineers, artists, visual effects creators, animators, researchers and producers.

What’s the next exciting project for Factory 42?

Factory 42 intends to play a leading role in the evolution of factual storytelling. This month [March 2023] we have a new adventure game about biodiversity (which includes talent who have worked on TV series such as Game of Thrones and the Star Wars film franchises) premiering at the SxSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. In part of the experience you can transform into a jaguar and stalk through the Amazonian jungle. It’s not quite the Fen Tiger but we’re quietly confident audiences will like it.

SXSW_F42 from Factory 42 on Vimeo.